The Other British Girl

Jay Chatterjee

“You can see the looks on their faces when I say I am from England, or they hear my accent. I have to clarify, ‘I am not that British girl.'”

Not so long ago, the Rhodes community found itself intrigued and enraged by the opinions of a particular British exchange student (we’ll call her EH). Countless opinionated “yaks,” rat lunch conversations, and overall snickering later, the whole controversy seems to have been placed on the back burner. But what remains is a certain level of wariness for “the British girl.” This wariness, bordering on dubious suspicion, seems to extend to the other British students on campus.

I sat down to talk to Gemma Shanahan, an exchange student from the University of Kent, about two weeks ago. Clad in a concert T-shirt and athletic shorts, she is much more casual than E, whose spectral, formal fashion has courted significant attention. In about the hour that we spoke, her frustration was evident. She fundamentally disagrees with EH’s opinions as her stated political and social leanings are vastly different. As she described, “I have been in the Labour Party since I was 16 years old. I am literally at the opposite of the spectrum. Her opinions make me uncomfortable because they are not the whole of Britain’s opinions”.

However, Shanahan feels that other students at Rhodes have chosen to lump all Brits in the same category. “We have a horrible past. We have committed many misdeeds. But that is the past, and all we can do, realistically, is acknowledge it and move forward with more progressive opinions. It is rare seeing someone still glorifying our past; that is not who we are.” She went on to explain how being so closely exposed to EH was an eye-opener for her. “You think that only people from a certain generation believe in some specific ideas. So it is jarring to see someone my age believing and actively promoting them.”

Despite uncomfortable moments, Gemma sees the source of hate towards EH’s opinions. She wades into the hate speech vs. freedom of speech debate. “Of course, everyone should have freedom of speech. But there comes a time when your opinions purposefully hurt, discriminate against, and disrespect certain groups of people. That is where we need to draw the line. Unfortunately, a lot of EH’s opinions are hate speech because they target specific groups of people.”

Hearing the other British perspective on a campus that was temporarily abuzz about one British girl’s views was a fascinating experience.